If there’s one thing that defines CES this year, it might be the virtual-reality headsets that have filled the halls in Las Vegas. But the technology has yet to face the big tests. That may come later this year when some much-awaited products hit the market.
LAS VEGAS — It’s nearly impossible to walk more than two minutes at CES 2016 without seeing people gesticulating wildly while wearing a large virtual-reality headset over their faces.
A number of small companies are making big entrances into the hot VR business, but the true test of the burgeoning industry won’t happen until the middle of this year.
Two of the most prominent and closely watched VR companies are to release their headsets to the public in spring. Then consumers will really get a say on the talked-about technology.
The Oculus Rift, whose main engineering office is in the Seattle area, and the HTC Vive, which was developed with Bellevue gaming studio Valve, will be released in March and April, respectively. But consumers and other tech companies aren’t waiting for the giants to pave the way.
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The virtual-reality industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. Since 2010, investors have poured $4 billion into VR companies, according to a recent study by Seattle’s PitchBook Data. The growth in the number of investors has been huge; more than 170 new backers jumped into the space in 2015 alone.
From the sheer number of people at CES wearing big VR headsets, you would think the arena is packed. But PitchBook analyst Nizar Tarhuni insists it has room to grow.
“I don’t think it’s crowded right now,” he said. “I think interest is heightened, meaning it’s growing at a faster clip.”
Interest certainly spiked this week.
Oculus, owned by Facebook and headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif., released the long-awaited release date and pricing for its headset, the Rift. It will go for $599, the company said.
Not to be forgotten, Taiwan-based HTC, which has North American headquarters in Bellevue, disclosed the Vive will have a front-facing camera so that the wearer can see the real world without taking off the headset.
The headsets may be snazzy, but Tarhuni cautions that it’s not all about the hardware.
“The hardware is what drives the onset, but over time, the content is what matters,” he said. “You can have the best technology in the world, but if you have nothing to show through that medium, then it’s not going to stick.”
YouVisit, a New York company, caught on to that faster than most.
The company, led by founder Abi Mandelbaum, is working with professionals and the public to create a massive database of experiences that people can have across pretty much any virtual-reality headset, even the ones that start at $20.
YouVisit doesn’t work with gaming at all. Rather, it lets people travel virtually to places they’ve never been or go to a concert they could not afford.
Businesses can hire YouVisit to create experiences, but the company also has a kit online that lets anyone with a decent camera take panoramic shots and turn them into virtual experiences using YouVisit’s online software.
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“We focus on making the best software to make the hardware agnostic,” Mandelbaum said.
So far, it seems to be working. YouVisit’s virtual-reality experiences have had more than 11 million views, and people spend an average of more than 10 minutes on each experience.
There’s no doubt that the first and strongest use of VR technology will be for gaming. Developers have been creating content for years, and gamers are champing at the bit for the upcoming headset releases.
But Dan O’Brien, HTC vice president of VR, says other uses aren’t much further behind.
“Some partners have put their toes in the water, and others are doing cannonballs,” he said.
The company is working with developers who can quickly take a scan of a user’s brain, then let them walk through it using Vive. Another group wants to create a training tool for firefighters to learn how to handle burning buildings.
A replacement world
One of the biggest criticisms of the developing industry is its possible social implications. People are already tied to their phones; now they will be in a different world entirely, some say.
Bob O’Donnell, president of independent research firm Technalysis, thinks augmented reality is a better long-term bet. Microsoft has thrown its weight behind AR with the upcoming HoloLens, which didn’t make an appearance at CES. It has been demonstrated instead at several Microsoft product events.
“I just feel like anytime you have a device pulling you completely out of the world, I don’t see that becoming mainstream,” O’Donnell said of VR.
HTC’s O’Brien disagrees. Virtual reality is inherently social, he said, and developers are working to make it even more so. Engineers are developing games that people can play with friends, and games that one friend can play while others watch.
He said users see a virtual-reality experience for the first time and immediately rush to tell their family and friends about it.
SoftKinetic, a Sony affiliate that develops gesture-tracking VR technology, says one of consumer’s biggest demands is the ability to play with and against others in virtual worlds.